SPIRO: Grant is the All Blacks’ foxy selector
Grant Fox, All Blacks selector. Photo via http://www.theblues.co.nz/
Grant Fox was a number 10 who didn’t have much pace. He never scored a try for the All Blacks. But like all great playmakers he was quick between the ears.
Hugo Porta might have come close to rivalling Fox in the rugby brains department but no one has ever out-rivalled him. Quite simply Fox was the smartest playmaker of his time, or any other time.
This smartness meant that he rarely played on a losing side. He was part of an Auckland side that won over 50 Ranfurly Shield challenge matches on the trot. And he was the guiding genius behind several great All Blacks sides, including the 1987 side that won the inaugural Rugby World Cup tournament in 1987.
This side has been rated with the 1905, 1924, 1956, 1965, 1996 and 2011 All Blacks as among the greatest New Zealand has put out in a Test.
When the New Zealand Rugby Union announced the All Blacks coaching panel for 2012/2013 it was notable (at least to me but strangely to few New Zealand rugby journalists) that there was something missing from it. That something was the lack of a former All Black somewhere in the system.
Some rugby train-spotter will know when there has been a selection/coaching panel for the All Blacks without a former All Black on it. I don’t ever recall it.
The trend for former All Blacks to serve as selectors and coaches of the All Blacks was set after the fabulous tour of the UK and France (with one loss to Wales with the disputed ‘Deans try’ incident) by the 1905 All Blacks.
Lloyd Jones has written one of the finest novels about sport about this tour, ‘The Book of Fame.’ Many of the best players from this team went on to coach the All Blacks.
Billy Wallace, the running fullback who set up the try scored by Bob Deans (the great grand-uncle of Robbie Deans), coached the All Blacks side that first played for and won the Bledisloe Cup in 1945.
Alec McDonald, a fiery forward in 1905, coached the ill-fated 1949 side that toured South Africa. The captain of that side took over the coaching because McDonald was past it. The series was lost 4 – 0 but that captain became New Zealand’s greatest coach, Sir Fred Allen. Sir Fred never coached a losing All Blacks side.
It is obvious from this brief survey that the new coaching regime of Steve Hansen and Ian Foster needed, if the history of the All Blacks tradition was to be honoured, that an All Blacks had to be brought in as part of the selction team.
They made, or perhaps it was the NZRU, someone made the shrewdest of choices to pick Grant Fox.
Fox is a gregarious, respectful person who loves a yarn and a discussion about tactics and new methods, rather like another All Blacks number 10, Earle Kirton, who was a clear-eyed selector when Laurie Mains (an All Black fullback) coached the side in the 1990s.
One of the interesting things that Fox has told journalists is that Ian Foster collates all the statistics. But neither he or Steve Hansen are over-concerned about what the statistics might say. They will watch a single player for an entire game to gauge how he is going. They prefer what they see to what the statistics might tell them.
I know this goes against the Moneyball theory. But it has been pointed out that the baseball team that was created by the Moneyball theories never won a World Series.
The All Blacks are not a side that settles for a sort of pragmatic useful series of performances, with ordinary players playing above themselves to achieve better than ordinary results.
The All Blacks, with a win ratio of 75% of all matches played, regard themselves as the most successful international rugby team in the history of the game, and possibly the most successful international sports team ever.
So when Fox is watching players, he is looking for players with potential for greatness rather than players who will play to a decent level on a consistent basis.
The selection of the first All Blacks side since the team won the 2011 RWC tournament is interesting when the Fox factor is considered. There are three new All Blacks, with two of them in my opinion destined for greatness.
They are Brodie Retalick, the giant second–rower who is being developed as the new Brad Thorn, a pushing, mauling, punishing tackler of a second-rower.
And Julian Savea, the star of the 2010 Junior World Cup and a big, fast clone of Jonah Lomu.
The third new player is Aaron Smith, the epitome of a New Zealand type, the cheeky Maori halfback. Fox said he pushed for Smith, ahead of AndyEllis, because Smith reminded him of Graeme Bachop, a slick-passing halfback in the 1990s for the All Blacks.
Smith is the best and quickest passer currently playing in New Zealand rugby right now, Fox says. He believes that the extra fraction of a second created by this passing for Dan Carter will allow the All Blacks potent backline to really attack their opponents.
I am not including Smith in the category of a potentially great All Black halfback because by this time next year the All Blacks halfback should be T G Perenana, the Hurricanes youngster who is destined to be the best New Zealand halfback since Dave Loveridge in the 1970s.
There is one other interesting selection for the side that will play Ireland at Eden Park on Saturday, and that is Victor Vito as the blindside successor of Jerome Kaino.
Vito’s game is based on thunderous running. But the selectors have told him they want a clone of Kaino, whose defensive work (remember the incredible tackle on Digby Ioane in the RWC 2011 semi-final) was a major factor in the All Blacks winning their second World Cup.
Adam Thomson has better form than Vito, but he will never be a great player, only a very good all-round loose forward. Vito, who is completing a law degree, has the potential to be the successor and more than of Kaino.
This is a potential that the selectors have opted for, in the tradition of the All Blacks.
All this is right now in the realm of theory. Ireland, as the Wallabies found to their cost during the 2011 RWC tournament, are the sort of side that can make a hash of theories.
This is going to be an interesting Test for all sorts of reasons.
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Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.